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Elton Brand Returns to Philadelphia as a Leader of (Big) Men

Elton Brand was happily retired and literally on a beach when the 76ers called him up. Now he's in uniform, trying to teach the NBA's worst team how to be winners.

by Tim Casey
Jan 12 2016, 1:30pm

Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Elton Brand was on vacation when the Philadelphia 76ers inquired about him returning to the NBA; then again, he's been on vacation ever since he left the league. Brand, a 16-year veteran, had retired in August and spent the new few months turning down numerous coaching, front office, and broadcasting offers. He enjoyed his new life and the freedom it afforded him; when the Sixers reached out, he was at Jamaica's Blue Lagoon with his family. He had no plans of coming back to the league, but the 76ers were persistent.

Brand finally relented last Monday and signed a contract to play for the team, the culmination of a series of events that began when the Sixers hired Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations on December 7. Soon after, Colangelo reached out to David Falk, his friend of 40 years and Brand's agent. The two men initially discussed Brand joining the front office. Brand then met with 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for breakfast. Coach Brett Brown called several times, too. They all expressed a desire to have Brand help turn around the league's worst franchise, as a player or an exec.

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Brand is still getting into shape and practicing; he hasn't played in any games. He said last Thursday that he was still a week or two away from returning, although he understands he's not in Philadelphia solely to contribute on the court. The 76ers see him as a mentor for forward Nerlens Noel and center Jahlil Okafor, two young big men with loads of potential who were five and three years old, respectively, when the Chicago Bulls made Brand the first overall pick in 1999. "He's here to guide our young guys," Brown says. "Anything else is a bonus."

Brand, who entered the league when he was 20, believes he can relate to both Noel, 21, and Okafor, 20, and they seem eager to learn from him. Before Thursday's home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Brown noticed that Brand pulled Okafor and Noel aside and showed them some of Hawks forward Paul Millsap's tricks. Brand had not had a chance to sit down with Okafor or Noel in a one-on-one setting or get to know them well, but leading by example is a big part of his job description. "I just feel like he's comfortable in his own skin, incredibly comfortable with his particular role here," Brown said. For a franchise that has spent years trying and mostly failing to find its footing, a little comfort can go a long way.

Elton Brand even mentors strangers. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Elton Brand's entire career could serve as an example for players like Noel, Okafor, and Joel Embiid, the Sixers' injured big-man prospect. After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2000, Brand put up some good numbers on bad teams early in his career, but his breakout season came with the Clippers in 2005-06. He averaged a career-high 24.7 points and team-high 10.0 rebounds per game that year, and led the franchise to its first playoff series victory since it was known as the Buffalo Braves 30 years earlier. Injuries slowed him somewhat after that, but Brand became an effective role player during his career's later years. He's revered around the league for his professionalism and his ability to connect with all types of people.

"I'm happy we have an ultra old-timer-caliber player like that, that's been through a lot and has played in the playoffs," said Noel, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Noel is averaging 10.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and has shown tremendous promise as a shot-blocker. "He's seen a lot of things that can help us with what we're doing now and help us individually moving forward."

Brand's presence should benefit Okafor, too. When Duke recruited Okafor, he said, the coaches raved about former stars such as Brand, who won the Wooden Award and AP National Player of the Year honors as the leading contributor on the Blue Devils team that made the 1999 NCAA Tournament final. Okafor was just as impressive in his only season at Duke, finishing as the Blue Devils' top scorer and rebounder and helping them win a national title in April before declaring for the NBA Draft. The 76ers selected Okafor third overall and expected him to be a franchise cornerstone. Instead, Okafor's rookie season has been marred by off-court embarrassments; the 76ers suspended Okafor for two games in early December after video surfaced of Okafor in a fight outside a Boston nightclub. He's since vowed to change his behavior and looks forward to working with Brand.

"I think he's a great addition to our locker room, a great addition to our team," said Okafor, who's averaging 17.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. "We think we're going to benefit from him being here."

Still, there's a long way to go until the 76ers become respectable. They are 4-36 and on pace to win the fewest games in a season in NBA history. Opponents are outscoring them by more than 12 points per game, and the team has regularly been outclassed and outworked, like in last week's 126-98 loss to the Hawks.

"We played with no spirit tonight," Brown said after the game. "We played with no fight tonight." The team's talent deficit can't be solved by luring a 36-year-old ex-All-Star off the beach in Jamaica. Brand is on hand to help the team figure out some bigger things.

The learning process. Not to be confused with the smiling process. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Brand is not the only new face around since Colangelo took over. The 76ers hired Mike D'Antoni, the former Suns, Knicks, and Lakers coach, last month as associate head coach. Ex-NBA forward Shane Battier was in Philadelphia last week visiting the team. Battier became friendly with Hinkie while he was playing in Houston. Hinkie, then in the Rockets' front office taught Battier about advanced analytics. Battier knows Colangelo, too, from their time together with USA Basketball, where Colangelo is chairman. Still, Battier downplayed any significance to his visit.

"This was a situation where my wife said, 'You're around my house too much. Why don't you go out and explore the world a little bit?'" said Battier, laughing. "So I said, 'Hey Sam, I need to get out of the house. I'm going to Philly.'"

Battier, who retired in 2014, said he has no plans to play again. He's living in Miami with his family and, he said, is in the "exploratory stage of my life." He is meeting with teams, making some financial investments, and traveling for public speaking engagements. He is also in no rush to take a full-time offer. "As of today, I'm just passing through trying to have some good conversations about basketball," Battier said. "It's fun to come visit and see how people do things. I'm not here angling for a job or anything like that."

For Brand and Battier, helping the 76ers and getting together in Philadelphia served as a reunion of sorts. They were part of the same recruiting class at Duke and lived together as freshmen; the two remained close throughout their NBA travels. Brand did a decent amount of moving around after he left the Clippers and signed a five-year deal worth nearly $80 million with Philadelphia in 2008. Although the 76ers used their amnesty clause on Brand in July 2012, he continued to live in the Philadelphia area during the offseason while spending the end of his career in Dallas (for one season) and Atlanta (for two).

Brand admitted that he didn't know what to expect when he joined them for his first practice last Wednesday. He was impressed when he saw veteran Carl Landry diving for loose balls and everyone on the team continuing to care. "Getting here now and seeing coach Brown, seeing these guys' attitudes, there's 4-30 teams that would've definitely packed it in," he said. "Guys are trying to get better. Guys are winded. Guys are working hard. Honestly, I didn't know that would happen. I didn't know what was going on, but it was good to see that."

When you're thinking about changing the culture. Photo by Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Even when Brand gets in shape and plays in games, he's unlikely to make a huge difference on the court. After all, he averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game with the Hawks. Still, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said Brand helped him in his first two seasons as an NBA head coach, by cooperating with his teammates, giving them tips, and serving as a role model with his work ethic and his professionalism.

"He's one of the finest human beings I've ever been around," Budenholzer said. "I feel fortunate to have been in the league a long time and around a lot of not just great players but great people. I'd put him at the top, to be honest with you."

Since Brand retired, he has remained in touch with Budenholzer; the Hawks were among the organizations interested in hiring Brand. Budenholzer said that he had hoped to visit Brand while he was in town with the Hawks, but with Brand now on the 76ers, Budenholzer would have to take a rain check. He joked that it wouldn't have been appropriate for him to show up at Brand's home for breakfast.

"I wish he was with us," Budenholzer said. "Tell him I'm a little hurt."

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